A sharp-tongued, power-blazer-wearing Emma Thompson combined with Mindy Kaling’s inherent earnestness and a rogue Hugh Dancy appearance cannot absolve Late Night. Directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Kaling, the film waters down gender issues in the workplace with perfunctory laughs and a melodramatic plotline.
Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a seasoned, late-night talk show host whose career is jeopardized by her own indifference and complacency toward her audience. Only the threat of her show’s cancellation invigorates her to switch up the writers' room. Kaling’s character, Molly, is brought on as the “diversity hire” to help mitigate Katherine’s anti-feminist image. This is just the beginning of Late Night’s awkward, if not downright absurd, treatment of a girl power narrative. Katherine is the only female late-night host, and has held her position for decades. Oddly enough, Katherine doesn’t seem to like other women, nor has she mentored other females in the industry. The film falls flat in encouraging us to root for such a person.
What’s even more upsetting is how Late Night doesn’t really show off the comedic talent of women. In fact, it works hard to show the female characters in heightened polarities. Katherine is stone-cold, no nonsense, and says what she feels no matter who she hurts. Molly, conversely, is portrayed as an emotional wreck whenever someone hurts her feelings, crying in the bathroom and even under her desk. Maybe those characterizations could have panned out if their true core identities as comedians would have shined in this film. But they do not. Only one of Molly’s written jokes is even mentioned in the entire narrative; the rest of her jokes are just one-offs in conversations with side characters. But they lose their punch once it’s bogged down in the overdramatic story arcs. In particular, great concern is shown for Molly’s doomed relationship to pretty boy Charlie (Hugh Dancy) or her idolization of her older boss, when both make it clear that they’re only using her with no regard for her comedic talents in any real manner.
Katherine is treated in much the same fashion, in that her comedy is a footnote to her larger, theatrical story arc. She only does one unfunny stand-up routine apart from any bits for her talk show. Filmmakers draw agonizingly awkward attention to the fact that she is older and makes Twitter rant jokes void of desirous results. She has a coming-to-Jesus moment and realizes during the set that her comedic complacency is the real problem. Again, this doesn’t make us the audience laugh; it only makes them realize the emotional journey she’s on. Preferably, the filmmakers would have invested their time more wisely by investing in Katherine herself. She should be so painstakingly funny, even in her cruelty and complexity, that we accept or ignore her faults. Unfortunately, as the humor dies out, her faults become more and more glaring.
Essentially, Late Night panders to a very specific audience. It aims precisely for the “lowest common denominator” audience, something the film’s characters even speak about not doing to their own audience. It’s almost like seeing big neon signs and lights and billboards all pointing the way to the next beat in the joke or the next conflict arising. But humor doesn’t need to be spelt out in bold with exclamation points at the end. It simply needs to take us off guard, which Late Night consistently fails to do.